The Connotation of Opportunistic

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Thanks to reader Rob Wright for pointing out the problematic use of the word opportunistic.

He offers two examples of its misuse:

1. A radio advertisement telling listeners, “now is an opportunistic time to invest in real estate.”

2. A television host defending someone against the charge of “being opportunistic.” The host argued, “everyone should be opportunistic because it would be stupid to throw away opportunities.”

The problem in both examples is that the word opportunistic is being used without regard to the word’s established negative connotations.

opportunistic: Taking immediate advantage, often unethically, of any circumstance of possible benefit. (American Heritage)

opportunistic: Exploiting opportunities with little regard to principle or consequences. (Merriam-Webster)

The OED defines opportunistic as “involving, displaying, or characterized by opportunism.” and opportunism as “the practice or policy of exploiting circumstances or opportunities to gain immediate advantage… with the implication of cynicism or lack of regard to principles.”

This misunderstanding of the negative connotation of opportunistic is apparently widespread. An investing site has as its tagline: “Emphasizes an opportunistic, value-oriented and risk-controlled approach to investments.”

A wrestler preparing for a match says, “I don’t want to think too much in there. I want to be more opportunistic and let it flow.”

A headline on another investment site exclaims, “The Intel of NFC: One ‘Ground Floor’ Stock Every Opportunistic Investor Should Snap Up Today.”

Other sites, many of them having to do with antisocial behavior, employ opportunistic in its more usual sense.

Bullies…lack self-discipline, are egotistic, exploitative, rapacious, opportunistic, driven, reckless, and callous. (site with the title, “Coping with Stalking and Stalkers”)

Narcissists are opportunistic. They can make a show of being “generous” but their generosity usually has strings attached. (Support site for people who have family members suffering from a personality disorder.)

Several English words having to do with opportunity derive from the same Latin source as opportunistic: ob portum veniens, a term that referred to coming into a port, where opportunities for profit were to be found.

opportune: adj. Appropriate or suitable for a particular action; fit, convenient.

opportuneness: noun The fact or quality of being opportune (in various senses); timeliness.

opportunely: adv. In an opportune manner; suitably, conveniently.

These words lack the pejorative connotation of opportunistic. For example, the radio announcer might have said “now is an opportune time to invest in real estate.” The television host might reasonably admire people for acting opportunely when a profitable occasion presents itself.

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2 thoughts on “The Connotation of Opportunistic”

  1. Interesting discussion, Maeve! I can’t say I’ve come across the misuse of “opportunistic” before, although I’m not really surprised by it…

  2. Why do you think it is that Opportunistic happened to acquire a negative connotation, but not the other forms of the root, opportunity? They all describe something similar. I guess the other 3 forms listed in the article don’t describe a personality type. I just can’t imagine why, for example, a word like realistic would have a negative connotation, where real, realism, reality, are neutral. I could easily put together an argument in that the word opportunistic is inherently neutral, and can manifest in positive or negative ways. Why then, do all dictionary definitions paint it in a negative light?

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